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Take That, Herod!

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Dec 18

Before we dive into our various Unpageant roles, first a poem by Joseph Brodksy, titled "December 24, 1971":

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi [kids, magi means wise men].
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of [candy], coffee flavored,
is the cause of a human assault-wave
by a crowd heavy-laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin …,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of a pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
[are] the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: [not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.]
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
a star.

Here at First Church, at Christmas and at our Unpageant, we’re all of us Magi, or at least some of us. The rest of us are angels, or maybe sheep or shepherds. The point is that we all have a role! Among other things, Brodsky reminds us that even Herod plays a part in this ever-unfolding drama of God’s love. Though he doesn’t have a costume, he’s here today with us, I’m sure of it, his threats looming like a thick mist over our hearts.

Though we don’t want to give him any more of a role, and God only knows what his Un-Pageant costume would look like, I think this year, especially, it behooves us to recall his role in our gospel accounts of that first Christmas. We know the magi are sent by Herod to go and find the child. We know that when they do, their hearts are filled with joy and they offer gifts of – say it with me -- gold, frankincense and myrrh -- good job, and see how I’m warming you up! What comes next though you won’t find in this or most Christmas pageants, nor shared at Christmas Eve. What comes next is this:

"And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph… Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. …. When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Matthew continues…

"When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. …There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…"

We can see why Herod isn’t often cast on such joyous occasions as this. He’s one scary dude, amen? Besides, we’ve already seen plenty of his likeness in the news lately, from those who would participate in a “slaughter of the innocents” (as this passage from Matthew is called), from those here and abroad who would try to scare away holy families of refugees and immigrants, from those who seek violence against school children in Connecticut, or at prayer meetings in South Carolina.

Let’s bring it back to Brodsky…

"Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder."

And to think that from all his vanity, violence and deception, from that emptiness as vast as the night sky, there still comes forth a light! The more certain the wonder, indeed! A newborn child, and a Spirit that’s Holy within us is ours to discover!

The stronger that Herod is, the more certain the wonder!
The darker the night, the brighter the light to guide us.
The deeper the fear, the more radical the love!

Truth to tell, I’ve never chosen to be one of the magi before. I usually prefer to be a sheep. It just feels more humble and they have better noises. Bah. Today, though, no matter what our costumes, perhaps all of us are magi, at least if we want to know where we go from here! Just like them, we too have been warned, as if in a dream! We too must first turn our hearts to joy and generosity. And we too must keep listening for what the angels are saying to each of us.

They usually lead with sayings like “Fear not!” and “Be not afraid!” Remember that assurance. And then to all of us who think we are our own royalty, they will tell us too, to find another road, another path, a new way home, an underground railroad if need be! This too is good news. This prompt and this agitation!

The stronger that Herod is, the most certain the wonder, and more sure we are to hear those angels, to follow the star, to discover the child anew and with him a Spirit that is like a holy fire within each of us! These are the “basic mechanics of Christmas.”

So find your role now, brings your gifts now. By the light of Christ, we will find a new way. For wonder and joy, generosity and love are the new resistance!

Take that, Herod!


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